You're Better Off Going Straight to Orbitz

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Sidestep's "meta" searches are great, but its new air/hotel package tool still needs serious work.

The product SideStep, a "meta" search engine that scours all kinds of Internet sites for airline, hotel, or car rental rates, has become the first online company to compare air/hotel packages--which, as readers of our 40 Best section know, are often cheaper than booking flights and lodging separately. Currently in the beta (or trial) stage, SideStep's package-search tool covers an impressive 230 destinations, but only displays results from Orbitz, Pleasant Holidays, and National Leisure Group. Even though these are huge players in the package market, there's no way to know if you're getting the best price by shopping three sources. (SideStep says it expects to add more in the coming months.) We put SideStep's new tool to the test looking for vacations in August.

Trial One

Four nights in Vegas, leaving from New York's JFK airport. SideStep listed 15 options, all from NLG's Vacation Outlet and all with a dreadful red-eye return via Chicago. The lowest price was the downtown Lady Luck Casino Hotel for $323 (all rates listed are per person based on double occupancy, with taxes included); the highest, $870 for The Hotel at Mandalay Bay. SideStep didn't pull any offers from Orbitz, even though when we checked Orbitz directly we got dozens of possibilities, including ones with nonstop flights. And when we looked at America West Vacations, we found 48 options, from the off-Strip Fitzgeralds Casino Hotel ($338) to the Bellagio ($1,731). Even SideStep's Sponsored Links--advertisers on the right-hand side of the site's results page--offered more choices: TravelWorm found 69 packages; dug up 77.

Trial Two

Seven nights in Honolulu departing from L.A. There were 35 options, the least expensive of which was Orbitz's Castle Island Colony for $773. (Castle Resorts and Hotels' own website, it's worth noting, featured the same package for $767.) For some reason, the flight times on SideStep were left blank. We had to click on "Customize" and were sent over to Orbitz to view the particulars.

Trial Three

Six nights in London flying out of Washington, D.C. The only London airport SideStep allowed us to search for was Gatwick, and there were no direct flights. For our first few sets of dates, in fact, SideStep wasn't able to retrieve any packages; strange, considering we quickly found dozens of options--for the same dates, many with nonstop flights--directly through Orbitz and Vacation Outlet. Finally, SideStep pulled up 20 trips from Orbitz in late August. The lowest price was $1,212, with a stay at the four-star Hilton London Euston--better than the cheapest package ($1,519) we located at Go-today, but $80 more than a deal that came with three-star accommodations from Virgin Vacations.

The Verdict

It's one thing to offer packages from three companies, but where SideStep proves most frustrating is that it doesn't even display their best packages. Also, SideStep presents each one with a single flight option, and if you don't like it you must click through to Orbitz or Pleasant Holidays to view alternatives. (Why not just go to these sites directly, we often wondered while shopping.) One feature we do like: A filter lets you narrow the options based on price and hotel star rating, distance from the airport, and amenities such as complimentary breakfast, pool, and fitness room. But for now, when it comes to packages, SideStep is a middleman that you should probably hurdle over.

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